United spirit keeps the old fires burning as Arsenal are put to the sword
Gary Neville picked his Team of the Season (thus far) ahead of Sunday’s fixtures and did not include a single Manchester United player.
He did, however, find a way to keep on speaking terms with his former Old Trafford team-mates by listing an additional team, those he would want alongside him as Squeaky Bum Time neared.
This was a team packed with seven United names like Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia, who did enough to prove Neville’s point at the Emirates.
Together: Manchester United celebrate opening the scoring at Arsenal
New heroes are emerging too. Danny Welbeck made a case for inclusion, as did Chris Smalling. The champions are not conceding their crown without a fight.
If last season’s triumph was sweeter for Sir Alex Ferguson because it knocked Liverpool from their perch, finishing this campaign in first will offer the United manager equal satisfaction by silencing the noisy neighbours for another 12 months.
As the players lined up and shuffled their studs in the tunnel, Neville and Graeme Souness were on Sky Sports discussing the impact Mario Balotelli’s late penalty might have on the title race.
‘Big moment’, they agreed after Balotelli eased Manchester City six points clear.
United responded, averting any attempt from Arsenal to avenge August’s 8-2 defeat.
On a day when substitutions were the talk of the Emirates, Ferguson got his right, refusing to fret about damage to Rafael’s ego when he hooked him an hour after sending him on to replace the injured Phil Jones.
Next generation: Danny Welbeck (centre) has come through the ranks
Rafael stormed towards the tunnel before something changed his mind, and he veered left to take a seat on the United bench.
It seemed to contrast with the mood simmering in the home team, with Robin van Persie shaking his head as Arsene Wenger sent on Andrey Arshavin for Alex Oxlade Chamberlain.
Valencia switched to right back, and, from there, created the winner, over- lapping and tormenting Arshavin, trading passes with Park Ji-sung and setting up Welbeck’s goal.
What a contrast to Arsenal’s emergency right back Johan Djourou, who was removed at half-time, presumably to spare him further humiliation at the hands of Nani.
It was clearly a tactic to target Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen, both playing out of position at full back. The tactic worked, although no-one expected Valencia to open the scoring by towering above Vermaelen to head home.
Struggling: Arsene Wenger
‘Winning after City had won, that was the important thing,’ said Ferguson. 'We said that before the game. But we did it in the right way. We played football, were adventurous.
‘We had belief in ourselves. I’m delighted with that at this time of the season.
‘It’s always difficult coming to the Emirates. Arsenal are a top side. We had to play well for most of the game and we did. The first half in particular was a golden period for us.
‘We should have rammed home the advantage.’
The glory was Welbeck’s but Smalling grows in stature. It is telling that he was preferred to Jones in a central defence charged with keeping Robin van Persie out.
Van Persie did score his 23rd of the season, from a chance many times harder than the one he somehow missed, early in the second half.
But, despite almost costing his side a goal with a near- suicidal attempted ‘Cruyff turn’ in the second half, Smalling, earned praise from his manager for handling big Per Mertesacker when he was sent up front in a desperate bid to salvage a point.
It may not be a vintage United team but the new breed have certainly acquired the old spirit.